Tab Benoit is a dynamic, wildly popular artist and activist who’s fan base has exploded, making him one of the few very successful crossover hits from the blues into the mainstream. His audience continues to grow with every show he does, and it’s no surprise; his live show is electric and fun, and his albums are packed with soul, feeling, and stinging guitar licks on a precious beat up Fender. Intertwined with his music and life is his message about the dire state of the gulf coast wetlands, which are receding at alarming paces due to human interference, making the gulf far more susceptible to flooding, harming fishing in the area, one of it’s biggest sources of revenue, and possibly irreparably devastating one of the most biologically diverse region in the United States. We got Tab down on the back porch down in the bayou to talk, in his signature deep Louisiana drawl, about his latest album, Medicine, the wetlands, and his amazing music and influences.
So I wanted to know about your new CD, Medicine. you’ve got a ton of power on that. You’ve got this hard drivin’ guitar, a “Nice and Warm” style. Can you tell me a little about what you did on this album?
Nothin’ I didn’t do on the others! Same philosophy, you know? Get some material, go in the studio, turn on the machine and play! Very simple, lot of first takes, you know. Some of the stuff on there is the first time we ever played the song. There’s no rehersals or anything like that. It’s like “turn the machine on, it’s in this key, and y’all follow me!” And that’s how a lot of that comes about.
Do you do it like that often?
Yeah. Every time! [Laughs]. Every record is a surprise to me, too! You know, that’s the way the old guys did it! Some of my favorite stuff, like Lightnin’ Hopkins was being recorded by Alan Lomax. Alan Lomax found him in a boarding house somewhere, and [Lightnin’] said “hey man you bring in a bottle of Gin and a guitar and I’ll record something for ya!” and he sat down on the bed and just played. Made it up as he went along. That’s the raw thing, and as far as blues goes, I don’t think it should be done any other way! Blues is a feeling, it’s not a style, really. So if you want to play, let it go! You plan it out too much , you’ll destroy the blues part of whatever you were doing. You can play blues licks, but that don’t necessarily mean you’re playing blues. Blues has to be a guttural thing that you can’rt really plan and rehearse out and figure out. There’s no way to really figure it out… Nobody can figure out how John Lee Hooker could play with two fingers and make it sound like that, you know?? And you shouldn’t be able to! That’s the beauty of it. He could do that, but it’s the same way. The way those guys recorded, I don’t think it needs to be changed. And that’s the way I feel the most comfortable doing it anyways, so, you know, if I can get away with it, then I’ll go do it like that.
One of the themes on the album is all about the wetlands, and I know you head up the Voice of the Wetlands foundation to help save and promote the plight down there. Part of what I wanted to talk to you about is what’s going on with the wetlands down there. I’m a big supporter of Louisiana and people ought to know about what’s going on and how it’s affecting them. What’re you doing with both the band and the organization?
The organization was put together to try to empower people, I guess, and get active. In particular, to people who are in the arts, because they have a voice and I just felt like, you know, pre-katrina nobody was using their voice. Especially around New Orleans, people didn’t really understand what was happening on the other side of those levees, and the more I dug into it and worked at it, the more I realized that the place was in trouble. And the people there didn’t know. So I started contacting all of my musician friends in the city and saying “look, let me lay it out to you; this is what’s goin’ on. You gotta tell the people there that y’all got problems and y’all needs to start screamin’ and makin’ noise because it ain’t gonna be good.”
A lot of it started when FEMA got taken over by Homeland Security. I went to some meetings about this big hurricane that they made up as a sort of catastrophic scenario so they could come up with a plan as to what to do when that scenario happened. And the scenario was that when this “Hurricane Pam” would come through and knock out Port Fourchon, which is the oil port for the country, and then it would flood the city from the river, so the northeast eye-wall of the storm would push the river over the levees in New Orleans and flood the city. They went to all of the parishes around New Orleans and had public meetings and nobody was showing up. No public was showing up, and what they were sayin was really scary, you know? They weren’t talking about people, they weren’t talking about rescue, they weren’t talking about housing, they weren’t talking about anything that had to do with people at all. It was all infrastructure. It was refineries and the port system, and they were going to take over the hotels and put their people in hotels and all of this stuff. And I just felt real helpless and backed into a corner. So I started to going to all of my friends in New Orleans and telling ’em “this is where we are, this is what’s gonna take to flood the city, and this is how it’s gonna be handled. And you don’t want ANY of it. And we got to make some noise here and get the rest of the country to understand, and get the people here to understand what’s coming.” And then Katrina happened about a year later.
So that was the year before Katrina, huh?
It was a year before I finally got the organization together and really started planning some kind of plan of attack with the music. You know? “Let’s do a record, let’s play together, let’s do something together where we show people that we’re bonded on this and we can go out there and make some noise in a big way.” Then all of that happened right then. And I was working on an Imax show at the same time, and it was called Hurricane Warning when we started filming it, and then Katrina happened while we were filming it, so it was a movie about what would happen if a big storm hit the area, and it came true, so now it’s called “Hurricane in the Bayou”. So I had all this stuff in motion to make a big push at one time and really try to get some awareness going and this happened, while I was working on it.
I guess you got your awareness, though not the way you wanted, I’m sure…
Yeah, I know but you gotta take the positives away from everything and try to move forward from there. I can’t control mother nature and what happened… You gotta, you can’t control the way things are handled, and it takes a lot of us to do it, but I’m trying to encourage people to do it, get off their butts and go do it. If you don’t like the way the government’s handling your back yard, well you have the ability to say something. The door is open. And I wanted to show everybody that it was. I wanted to prove to myself that it was… And it was. It let me all the way to Congress to speak about what was going on there.
So I mean, you know, the door’s open. I’m tired of people pointing their finger at the TV and bitching at people on the TV for their problems when they don’t really even know what the problem is. What they’re telling you on the TV was not the truth. I know that directly. I did a whole bunch of filming for CNN in my airplane and they just gave me all the footage back, just a few months ago. They didn’t use any of it. They just gave it back to me. “Here we can’t use this. Here’s, you know, seven years worth of material”, that I paid for. I paid for the airplane and the fuel and to fly these guys around and they just gave it all back like, “it ain’t worth nothing to us.”
People want to know about these wetlands. What’s important about them? People outside of Louisiana and the gulf coast, they don’t know these sorts of things.
Well, it’s the biggest port in the country. It’s our cultural center. 70% of the oil we use comes through there. 40% of the nation’s refineries are there. We can’t abandon it because we’re all reliant on it. There’s pipelines running all over this country that’re coming from there. The Gulf of Mexico is like our Persian Gulf, and everything that we use is an oil product; it’s not just what you’re burning in your car. Your clothes, everything’s made out of plastic. Everything that you see when you look around, paints and furniture and walls and everything we looking at is made of oil products. Let’s look at it for what it is, and it’s just a matter of people having never been educated on what’s happening because it’s been hidden. A lot of stuff that’s happening to us has been hidden from us for a long time, and it’s time we understand. That’s why every time y’all look at the news and you see something big going on down there you scratch your head and go “how can that be?” That’s because you missed out on the 80 years of the history of oil and government coming into Louisiana and pretty much taking over, you know? And that’s where we stand today. We haven’t changed that. Look at the BP thing. Look how much power the oil company had, and they made the mess! They had the power to keep the president out, the power to keep the government out, they had the power to keep all of us out. They laid out a zone and nobody could cross those lines. They had the power to uphold those lines. And that’s a foreign oil company on our soil. So you gotta look at this for what it really is! I’m not giving you an opinion. This ain’t no opinion! I’m giving you what I’m seeing. All of this is happening in my back yard.
What does that have to do with the receeding wetlands?
[pullquote]it took that kind of encouragement from other people to be able to get me to go and try, you know?[/pullquote]
The coast is actually supposed to be building land. The delta actually deposits land, which is the problem. When you open the biggest port in the country and you’re bringing oil tankers in every day, you know, the deepest water in nature, if the river delta was left alone, would be 20 feet. Well, when you’ve got an oil tanker that drafts forty to fifty feet and you’ve got land in the way. And when they decided to do this, they were still dealing with steam shovels and things like that, so back in the 1920’s, they really didn’t have the technology yet to dredge 20 or more feet of water or mud on a regular basis. So they decided, well, they would squeeze river off at the bottom, which was going to raise the river level. On a normal basis, the level of the river as it comes through New Orleans is 8 to 10 feet above sea level – and that’s not that far from the gulf – so it drops that much going into the gulf, and that’s what creates the speed and the pressure and everything else to blow the sediment out into the gulf. So all of the land and the soil and the fresh water that’s supposed to be going through the delta to continue building it is being forced out off of the continental shelf. It’s going to the wrong place!
It’s all because of shipping, basically. So we sacrifice the coast for shipping. And nobody’s changed that philosophy. Thats still the way that the [Army Corps of Engineers] handles the delta of the Mississippi River. “Land is bad, it’s in our way, we need to get rid of it.” Even when they do dredge, they don’t just put the mud on the other side of the levees, they go out into the middle of the gulf and dump it out there. They want to get rid of land. That’s the philosophy, that’s the way it’s been laid out for the last 80 years, so that hasn’t changed. It would have to change from the President to the Department of Interior to the Corps. So that’s what we have been trying to do, really. We’ve just been trying to get the idea out there. It ain’t about money. All of this can be changed really easily. There’s areas of the Atchafalaya [River] where they’ve let it go and now the delta’s building there, so it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. Here’s a roadmap of what works, here’s what doesn’t work. It should be a no-brainer.
And who’s in the Voice of the Wetlands Allstars?
It’s Me, Dr. John, Cyril Neville, George Porter, Johnny Vidacovich, Anders Osborne, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Johnny Sansone, and Waylon Thibodeaux.
That’s one heck of a lineup!
Yeah! Yeah! I mean, well, these are all guys that expressed interest in getting involved whenever I was putting something together, so we had a festival to raise some money so we could make an album, and we went out and made an album together! The first Voice of the Wetlands album.
Do you have any opinion on the spillway they opened that flooded out the Cajuns?
[pullquote]I got the same feelings listening to George Jones as I did listening to Otis Redding. It all works it’s way into your stuff, whatever you’re listening to, if you allow it.[/pullquote]All of that is a result of choking off the main drain in the first place. That river delta is supposed to be 100 miles wide, and it’s only coming out in two areas. One is the Mississippi River itself, which is leveed off to a mile wide, and the other is the Atchafalaya river, which is 30% of the Mississippi River water that’s coming out to about a quarter of a mile wide. So you took a hundred mile wide delta and you choked it down to less than two miles of the area that’s actually coming out into the gulf. That creates flooding all the way up. You chokin’ the main drain of a third of the country! So, what that Morganza spillway is, it’s opening up 50% of the Mississippi River water into tributaries that’s only designed ot hold 30%. So you’re going to have some spillover. I really don’t have — my opinion is that it should have been left the way it was supposed to go. At least leave the main tributaries open with flood control gates so you can allow a certain amount of water when it needs to go through. That’s my opinion about it, but that’s not opinion, that’s mother nature. That’s the way it was designed, and everything works better if you go with it instead of trying to fight that. The way it’s designed now, they’ve got two spillways to relieve pressure. And that’s basically to save New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Those are population centers, port centers… You’re not going to argue those points. If they’re going to flood farmland and people’s houses down there, they’re going to do it. But when it comes down to it, people have to understand that they live in a spillway and their house should be 13 foot above sea level, at least. I mean, if you live in the delta of the Mississippi, you should be above ground, and hopefully you won’t have a problem. The water is hopefully something you can evacuate from. That water is a necessary part of the delta. That river flood is, in fact, what the delta needs, as far as depositing land into those areas. But every time you talk about people’s houses flooding, it creates a big issue, but you know, go to the Amazon and see how they live. They live above the ground, they all got boats. Go to the Nile delta, they live the same way. They didn’t change the river to suit them, they changed the way they lived to suit the river. So that seems like the obvious best way to do it. If you’re going to live there, get yourself above the ground.
You play a lot of Soul, I’ve noticed. That old Stax/Volt stuff. What’re your musical influences? you talk about John Lee Hooker and Lightning Hopkins and I know you play a lot of that Otis Redding stuff.
Yup. Otis Redding and Ray Charles… Aretha Franklin. I loved all of that stuff. Jackie Wilson… all of those guys. Sam Cooke, all of that stuff was dynamite. I also loved George Jones and Hank Williams and stuff like that in the same ways. They were soulful country guys. To me, as a kid, listening to that stuff felt the same way. I got the same feelings listening to George Jones as I did listening to Otis Redding. It all works it’s way into your stuff, whatever you’re listening to, if you allow it.
What makes you so popular? You are one of the most popular acts in the blues. You’ve got huge crossover appeal. How do you do it? What’s your magic?
[Laughs] I don’t know man! I couldn’t tell you. I got into music because people asked me to play, you know? I mean, I’ve always played but I didn’t look at it as a living, and I didn’t look at it as being a recording artist and all of that. I mean, it’s something that we do all of the time anyways. When you have a crawfish boil or something like that, people bring instruments and we have a jam, you know? It’s kind of the way it’s always been, so making it my living was really just a matter of giving in to people that kept asking me to play! They kept asking me to play more and kept offering me more money to do it and I just said “ok! If this is what y’all want me to do, I’ll go do it,” you know? And I’m going to keep it to where it’s stripped down, and it’s just me, and I’m not going to rely on tricks and pedals and all of these other things. If what’s coming out of what’s coming out of me naturally isn’t good enough, that’s cool and I’ll just go right back to flying airplanes and doing what I was doing before. I did it for the people that were asking me to do it, so maybe that’s it, I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you where popularity comes from [laughs]. And all I can say is that I’m one of them. My shows are always open to the public as far as requesting songs and yelling stuff out and talking. I talk back and forth to the people in the audience and we have fun! That’s our little private party. That’s the way I look at it.
Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. Your live shows. You’ve got that old fender guitar, amp… that’s what you do!
Yup. Plug in and go, man. That’s what I say, if that ain’t good enough then I’m not good enough and I don’t need to be doing it! I ain’t gonna beat a dead horse and force people to listen to something that they don’t want to hear. It ain’t me. I chose this because they wanted me to do it, not because I wanted to do it. Of course, I would have loved to have done it when I was younger and thinking about it. You know, you never think that you’re going to be able to, and it took that kind of encouragement from other people to be able to get me to go and try, you know?
How many tour dates do you do a year?
200 something dates.
So you’re always on the road then. Where’d you record your new album Medicine at?
Recorded it in Lafyette at at Dockside Studio. I mixed it at my studio at home. A studio is not as important as it used to be, you know? It’s a matter of who’s running the board more than anything, as far as studios go. We’re in the “digital age” of recording. You can make a record at home about as good as you make in the studios these days. It’s just a matter of making a comfortable space to record in. And Dockside is a comfortable place, and it’s close to home, so it’s convenient. And they’ve got great people over there. I like going to visit the people that own it and the people that work there. I’m not a real studio kind of guy. I’m a live artist, so I don’t spend a lot of time in the studio. Three days and done. Single take stuff. Get a good track, move on. Get a good track, move on! Even if we didn’t get a great one, we’ll come back and play it tomorrow again and try to get another first take again.
It works well! You’ve got a powerful sound out of all of them. I wouldn’t call it raw. The guitar just sounds so damn good, every time you get on an album.
I’m doing the exact same thing I’m doin’ live. Plug in, turn it up, turn on the machine and play. I don’t overdub anything. I ain’t going back and redoing solos. I ain’t going back and redoing vocals. It’s all live. If you listen, you can hear the guitar pick clicking on the strings while I’m singing! So I’m playing it live just as if I was in front of an audience. And that’s the way it feels in the studio when everybody’s playing together and you’re not going back and fixing anything. Because you know I’m really kind of a stickler for that. I try to keep anybody from having to go back and fix anything so it makes them have to play it now, you know? If you can’t play it now, what’re you going to do when we get on the stage? We can’t stop and have a retake on stage, so if you can play on the stage, you can play in the studio the same way. So, I keep that philosophy going and it tends to get the band to listen more, they’re trying harder. They’re really trying to pull off that first take, you know? Because it feels like there’s not a second one, just from that idea that we’re going to play it now and that’s it.
Find Tab Benoit’s new album Medicine at Telarc Records
Find more on Tab Benoit at his website!
Wonderful interview, Matt, thank you so much! Was pleased to hear Tab mention Dockside Studios, in Lafayette, as it has produced so many fine artists over the years, including the late Bobby Charles, Sonny Landreth, Dr. John, and many hundreds more. He shared with me that the unique warmth of his playing comes from that old Fender Telecaster he treasures. You just cannot produce anything that comes close to it, as the wood just does not exist anymore. I love to hear that the tracks came right off the floor. “Medicine” is an enjoyable album!